2005/06 Euroleague Preview: The Favorites

2005/06 Euroleague Preview: The Favorites
Oct 27, 2005, 02:02 am
Another edition of the Euroleague is about to start. Needless to say, this exciting competition features the best players you will find outside of the NBA, as well as excellent squads capable of displaying some of highest-quality basketball you will find anywhere in the world.

24 teams will fight for a spot in the 2006 Final Four in Prague in late April. Despite losing a few stars to the NBA, such as Sarunas Jasikevicius, Arvydas Macijauskas and José Manuel Calderón, the level remains in good shape. After two spectacular years where the offensive show of Maccabi Tel Aviv ruled the tournament, making history with back-to-back titles and securing a place in the memory of basketball fans worldwide, this year’s edition looks a bit more open.

Of course, Maccabi is in the mix again despite losing Jasikevicius, as are the other three teams that made the Final Four last year: a deeper and perhaps stronger Tau Vitoria, a renewed CSKA Moscow and the always defensively strong Panathinaikos. Two other teams have to be taken very seriously into account given their recent accomplishments performances and ambitious rosters; they are Winterthur FC Barcelona, featuring a deep and talented roster, and the always solid Efes Pilsen.

These six squads look like the most steadfast early candidates for the final triumph. Of course, they are not the only ones, but they are ones that have been chosen for the first DraftExpress preview of the 2005/06 Euroleague.

Maccabi Tel Aviv

2004-05 Record: 20-4

Jonathan Givony

The back to back Euroleague Champions Maccabi Tel Aviv look poised to make yet another run to the Final Four this Spring. This Israeli powerhouse returns most of its core players with the exception of Lithuanian sharpshooter Sarunas Jasikevicius who has moved on to the NBA. Maccabi is considered one of the favorites to win the Euroleague once again as they are riding high after a very successful trip to the United States where they beat the Toronto Raptors on their home floor and were evenly matched with the Orlando Magic before running out of gas and losing the game in the 4th quarter.

Leading the team once again will be the player that is almost unanimously considered to be the most talented in Europe; American Anthony Parker. The 6-6 athletic and extremely versatile Parker is a complete player who excels in every aspect of the game. He will be asked to initiate Maccabi’s point guard-less offense and provide much of the scoring punch for the team from the perimeter with his exquisite slashing game and ability to pull up off the dribble from anywhere on the floor. Complimenting Parker in the front court are the extremely skilled Croatian Center Nikola Vujcic and explosive American Power Forward Maceo Baston. Both are considered top players for their position in the Euroleague. Rounding out the starting five from the backcourt will be the 6-7 steady, athletic and versatile Israeli combo guard Tal Burstein, who will be expected to carry more of the scoring load this season, and unpredictable but extremely talented 6-3 combo guard Will Solomon. Coming off the bench at the swing position will be New Zealand native and former Wisconsin product Kirk Penney, while the frontcourt will be fortified by young and athletic 6-10 Israeli big man Yaniv Green.

Maccabi’s biggest strengths, besides the awesome talent they put on the floor from the 1-5 positions, will be the chemistry, ball-movement and team spirit that have become a trademark of theirs over the past few years. Offensively, this is an extremely athletic and versatile team that loves to get up and down the floor and force mismatches at every position. Defensively, they often resorts to playing a now trademark matchup zone which can frustrate almost any team in Europe with the patience and tempo control it forces on the opposition. More than any other team in Europe, Maccabi is about as close as you will find to an NBA team in terms of the talent of its roster and the way they can control the game on both ends of the floor. The stability of the organization, the support it receives from its rowdy fan base, the team’s style of play and the way it conducts itself both on and off the court from the front office on down has made it a benchmark for teams to emulate not just in Europe, but all over the world. They are also certainly one of the most entertaining teams that you will find.

Tau Vitoria

2004-05 Record: 15-11

Luis Fernandez

How many things can a single minute change! After an excellent season that included Tau Vitoria’s appearance in the Euroleague Final in almost impossible matchup against the almighty Maccabi Tel Aviv, the dreadful 50 final seconds in the ACB League’s Finals against Real Madrid left this club frustrated and hungry for revenge that can only come in the form of a title.

With one of the best front offices in Europe, this team has done its homework over the offseason and is ready to compete against anyone. They didn’t let Tiago Splitter or Luis Scola leave the squad for the NBA, and Tau now looks on paper a stronger team than last season despite losing their starting backcourt of José Manuel Calderón and Arvydas Macijauskas.

Tau has always placed a large emphasis on its play in the paint, and this year it’s frontcourt looks better than ever. Likely no other team in Europe can match the offensive power that their four post players bring to the table. 6-9 PF Luis Scola is one of the best low post scorers in the competition; 6-11 PF/C Predrag Drobnjak is back in Europe after some decent NBA seasons and brings scoring versatility; 6-10 PF/C Kornel David provides an all around game including a very nice mid-range jumper, solid defense and a high basketball IQ; and finally, 7-0 PF/C Tiago Splitter will again be the defensive wall of the zone defense, always ready to boost the intensity of the team, and perhaps able to materialize on some of his offensive potential.

Macijauskas will be missed on the wing, but the shooting department is well covered with 6-3 SG Serkan Erdogan, his natural replacement, a less talented and explosive scorer but more of a steady and complete player, and 6-6 SG Casey Jacobsen, a former first round NBA draft pick with the right tools to become in Europe the star that his physical limitations didn’t allow him to be in the NBA. 6-6 SG/SF Sergi Vidal and 6-6 SG/SF Travis Hansen provide a defensive upgrade as well as decent offense, to complete an excellent rotation.

A bit more difficult to properly replace is current Toronto Raptor Jose Manuel Calderón at the point. 6-5 PG Roko-Leni Ukic, despite his great potential, is still a ways away. Roko will have to learn how to run an elite team after a few seasons of being the absolute star in KK Split. However, the 6-2 top-notch distributor Pablo Priggioni, the man that generated the best offensive moments for Tau last season, continues in Vitoria. He will gain importance this year, likely becoming the most irreplaceable piece in the team.

We can’t ignore the departure of Dusko Ivanovic, a coach that left an unforgettable footprint on this club; a demanding man who knew how to get the best out of most of his players. Pedro Martínez, one of the most serious and prestigious coaches in Spain, succeeds him. He has the material, not only to build a winning project, but to produce some quality basketball. It’s a balanced team, both in terms of outside-inside scoring punch and offensive-defensive efforts. Rebounding might be a concern given the lack of a real small forward and a rebounding specialist among the big men. Anyway, a return to the Final Four should be the goal for this squad.

CSKA Moscow

2004-05 Record: 21-2

Dimitris Ritsonis

A Final Four team participant in each of the past three seasons, yet not even once a winner, Russian Powerhouse CSKA Moscow is coming off a summer full of changes, where it looked to rebuild its roster and simultaneously its hopes for yet another Final Four berth and eventually the much anticipated capture of the Euroleague crown.

After what it was considered a missed opportunity last season losing the Final Four on its home floor, CSKA got rid of many key players and the man that was responsible for running the show from the bench. American scoring guard Marcus Brown, power forwards Dimos Dikoudis and Martin Muursep and wing men Sergey Monya and Antonio Granger are all gone. In their place are younger players who are expected to better compliment the team's star players, guards J.R. Holden, Theo Papaloukas and center David Andersen.

Overall, CSKA has started a new era, after the resignation of Serbian legendary coach Dusan Ivkovic and with Etore Messina now running the team, they might use their backcourt less and play a more team-oriented style of basketball, paced now more than ever by Australian star big man Andersen.

Andersen is once again expected to be the leading player of the frontline, thanks to his impressive skills and smooth post presence, and will be accompanied by the rising Slovenian star Matjaz Smodis, who enjoyed a great season last year with Fortitudo Bologna. Smodis has slowly developed into one of the Euroleague's best forwards, with a nice touch from the perimeter and a fearless game, especially in crunch time where he has shown extensive leadership. With all the talent that CSKA brings to the table, he will be likely be used as more of a role player, though. Russian International Alexey Savrasenko and the constantly improving youngster Nikita Shabalkin are expected to rest the two starting big men.

At the small forward position, American. David Vanterpool and Russian veteran Zakhar Pachutine will be an aggressive duo that is able to provide the team with all-around skills from the wing. Vanterpool is the more ready of the two to take over the offense, being a nice shooter and a fine passing forward, while Pachutine will use his skills, experience and toughness on both sides of the floor.

In the backcourt, the two point guards Holden and Papaloukas play two completely different styles of basketball. The athletic American who played in a Russian uniform this summer in the Eurobasket can outscore any defense and is a streaky shooter, but lacks steadiness and team-mentality. The Greek Papaloukas, fresh off of a heroic performance in the Eurobasket finals against Germany, provides extensive leadership, ball-handling, shooting skills and most of all intelligent play, usually off the bench. The two PGs can play together for some stretches, but the newly arrived for Duke Bluedevil Trajan Langdon will be starting at SG, taking over the role that Brown had last season as the team’s go to scorer, using both his slashing skills and his killer outside shot. Youngster Vassily Zavoruev is expected to play a bit more than last year, but he is still not in a position to fight for significant minutes against his more experienced teammates.

The Russians once again present what appears to be the largest budget of any basketball team outside the NBA, and anything less than a fourth straight Final Four appearance will be considered a major disappointment.


2004-05 Season: 15-10

Dimitris Ritsonis

Coming off a very successful season (finishing 3rd in the Final Four in Moscow) and having made only slight changes in the team's roster, Panathinaikos from Greece again appears to be one of the Euroleague's top preseason candidates.

International combo-guard and Houston Rockets draftee Vassilis Spanoulis brings his athleticism over to one of the deepest and most experienced backcourts in Europe, led by the successful European duo of Jaka Lakovic and Dimitris Diamantidis. The Greens now have three creative and extremely intelligent players capable of playing both guard positions, with all being excellent one-on-one players. Lakovic, a very talented shooter with increasing leadership skills and a fearless offensive game is the alter ego of the team-oriented Diamantidis, the Defensive Player of the Year last season in the Euroleague, a magnificent all-around player who excels in all aspects of the game except shooting. Spanoulis is still inexperienced and will be coming off the bench, but he will provide the team with a nice spark on both sides of the floor, especially on the defensive end with his dedicated style of play.

Veterans Vlado Scepanovic and Nikos Hatzivretas see most of their playing time at SF, as coach Zeliko Obradovic uses a three-guard system almost throughout the game to achieve a fluid and coherent defense. Both of them are experienced and steady players who can be very nice role players thanks to their shooting skills and defensive ability.

In the frontline, Panathinaikos' long-time center problem appear to have been solved, with the addition of multi-talented Serbian star Dejan Tomasevic, an excellent passing big man who has been battling injuries over the past couple of seasons. He will be joining athletic power forwards Kostas Tsartsaris and Mike Batiste, as well as German International Patrick Femerling, who all shared minutes at center last season. Both the more versatile Tsartsaris and the stronger Batiste can step outside and shoot, but both are also capable of finishing in the paint and will therefore benefit from Tomasevic's passing skills.

Panathinaikos' strongest weapon still appears to be its defense, last season being considered the strongest team in Europe in this area along with Efes Pilsen. The three-guard system is usually the norm and thus coach Obradovic is in a position to use any two of the four big men in the front-court, as well as the team's captain, veteran shooter Frankiskos Alvertis at PF in order to open up opposing defenses and at the same time keep the defense strong enough inside. 19-year old, 6-10 Dusan Sakota will likely again not see again much playing time and will be used more in the Greek championship games, where the easy competition allows the Greens to keep most of their starters rested for the tough Euroleague games. Sakota is an improving all-around shooting forward who is probably lacking the physical intensity and athleticism to be an NBA Draft 1st rounder but is looking to improve his strength and experience with Panathinaikos' senior team, this year more than ever.

Winterthur Barcelona

2004-05 Record: 11-9

Luis Fernandez

Coming off a very troubled season in the front office, reflected by poor results on the court, Barcelona has begun a new era without its franchise player Dejan Bodiroga and under the guidance of the Savic-Ivanovic duo. Coach Dusko Ivanovic had gained incredible respect for his mentality and work during the past few seasons in Vitoria, although perhaps the number of titles won wasn’t on par with the playing level showed by his teams. GM Zoran Savic comes from some very successful years with Fortitudo Bologna, where he built extremely competitive teams with limited budgets. Barcelona’s wealthier economy has allowed him to sign a sort of Italian Lega all star team (including Milos Vujanic, Gianluca Basile, Marvis Thornton, Michalis Kakiouzis and Denis Marconato), which merged with the remaining pieces of last year team, gives Barcelona an impressive roster.

At this point it’s quite difficult to predict who will be the leader of such a deep and talented squad. The candidates are newcomers like the still injured Milos Vujanic, a 6-3 PG with awesome scoring talent, 6-3 veteran SG Gianluca Basile, a wild shooter with crazy range and leadership skills, or 6-4 SG Marvis ‘Bootsy’ Thornton, another excellent scorer who brings athleticism to the team. However, it might the right time for team veteran Juan Carlos Navarro, a 6-3 and unstoppable one-on-one SG, as he showed a few weeks ago in the Eurobasket, to kiss goodbye to his offensive spark role and take over this squad, although it’s hard to predict if he will do that.

The impressive perimeter game is completed with 6-2 Shammond Williams, who will share the point duties with Vujanic, despite the fact that neither he is a pure playmaker, but rather another scoring guard to fuel even further the huge scoring potential of this team. Rodrigo de la Fuente, a 6-7 defensive-minded SF, will be in charge of the dirty work.

Barcelona is on the bandwagon of the modern power forwards, with 6-10 Michalis Kakiouzis, a very nice three-point shooter, and the 7-1 veteran Gregor Fucka, a face-up offensive player. Both players open up the court and create spaces for their teammates with their passing ability and ability to step outside. In the middle, 6-11 Denis Marconato provides size, much needed rebounding and stability, as well as a few points given the chance. 7-1 Spanish Youngster Marc Gasol (brother of you know who) should be his replacement off the bench, but it’s doubtful if Ivanovic, a coach in love with individual defense and automatic switches, will be comfortable dealing with such a slow player, despite his size and decent skill set. This is likely the weakest position of the team, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see a forward taking care of it during certain stretches.

The goal for coach Ivanovic will be to mesh these excellent individual talents into a real team, as well as manage to get some good defense out of them, although for the most part they are serious players with good defensive attitudes. It will be interesting to see how his mentally exhausting methods fit with a veteran squad like this one. In Vitoria he had young and hungry warriors playing for him; in Barcelona, it’s an experienced group with plenty of titles and achievements under their belts.

Efes Pilsen

2004-05 Season: 17-6

Sadik Iliman

One thing is for sure: If there is one team which deserves to make it to the Euroleague Final Four, it is Efes Pilsen. For the last three seasons the Turkish club was almost there but in the end saw it slip away. Against CSKA (three season ago) they came up one game short, against Climamio Bologna (two seasons ago) it was a buzzer beater that took them out of contention and last year against Panathinaikos once again made them come just one game short.

Now, Efes is ready to start another run. After parting ways with Will Solomon, Efes landed Croatian point guard Marko Popovic who will be one of the main options on offense both with his scoring and leading ability. His backup will be Ender Arslan who was criticized harshly due to his poor performance in the European Championships. Indeed, it looked that Arslan failed to improve. This year he will have to step up again.
The duo of Henry Domercant and Antonio Granger will be probably one of the most dangerous shooting duos in the Euroleague on the wings. Domercant, who improved step by step last year should now be used to this kind of level. Granger is an excellent addition to the team since he already played for Efes. He will have to shine with his all around game and will probably also be used in the paint to post up his opponents. The two will be backed up by experienced forwards Alper Yilmaz and Mustafa Abi who often shined with his very good defense last season.

The biggest weapon of this team was and still is the frontcourt. There is once again a four man rotation: Kaya Peker, Kerem Gönlüm, Niksa Prkacin and Ermal Kuqo. Kuqo is facing serious problems due to doping allegations stemming from the European Championships. For now it looks like he will be out for some time, but there is nothing official so far. A newcomer to this rotation is Kerem Gönlüm. The athletic power forward brings very good rebounding skills and post moves as a hungry target inside the post. In addition, Prkacin will be used again as somewhat of a point-center due to his tremendous passing ability.

And then there is Atlanta Hawks draftee Cenk Akyol. Akyol improved significantly over the years as you could see at the U18 European Championships. Last year he saw more playing time in the Turkish league than at the Euroleague level. Now there is less doubt that he is finally experienced enough to play a key role in the Euroleague plans of his team. There is also less doubt about his ability as he has proved. He could be used as a point guard but will probably back up Domercant at the two.

And last but not least there is the star of the team: Yes, it’s the coach, Oktay Mahmuti. Mahmuti did a tremendous job since taking over Efes in the last few years, although he is still very young. With Mahmuti and his discipline on the sideline, Efes seems to be a team that will be competitive as long as they are playing the game. In the last three years many good players such as Marcus Brown, Kaspars Kambala and Antonio Granger left the club, but Efes still found ways to bounce back, with the main reason being Coach Mahmuti.

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